in good company
November 12, 2006

I've been thinking about my grandmothers a lot lately—both of them. So when I invite Sheila and her husband over for dinner, Granetta's seafood gumbo is the first thing I think of to make. I pair it with key lime pie, although it's something of a false Florida connection since I only got the recipe from Mom about a month ago, after she clipped it from the Dallas Morning News.

Gumbo is the kind of thing you can make and talk to a roomful of people at the same time—which is lucky, because Sheila is giving me a rapid-fire account of their recent European tour-by-bicycle and her new novel, and no one can cram in as many interesting remarks per minute as Sheila. (Sophocles is playing with the cat.) This is the best way to have dinner with friends because even when the meal is an hour overdue, no one really notices because the conversation hasn't lagged.

What swings this dinner party scintillatingly close to the edge of disaster is my insistence upon making Sheila a separate soy key lime pie. The idea itself isn't a bad one: I've made soy crème brûlée with some success before. She's not certain she can't have the condensed milk in the regular pie (which prompts all of to realize we don't know the difference between evaporated milk, powdered milk and condensed milk—but Joy of Cooking is handy). Still, I'd hate for her to not enjoy dessert.

No, what edges this dinner near the precipice is merely tininess: I don't anticipate that two key lime desserts means four mixing bowls, or that mixing a tiny portion of soy "cream" would spray milky liminess all over the kitchen, or that one mixer would go down in the midst of all of this. And that's when I begin to regret that my kitchen doesn't have a door to hide the mess while we eat. We can turn off all the lights and eat by tiny tea lights, but the sticky, sugary, soy-strewn kitchen is still lurking in the shadows.

The slow-cooked gumbo is exactly the way it used to taste when Granetta (or my mother) made it. Its bacon-fat base soaks into the rice and the bread (the one meal in which my mother will allow two starches). We all help ourselves to second portions (from the messy kitchen), then lay into the pie. (The soy version comes out exceedingly tart, but Sheila claims to like it that way.)

Then, as we finish off the wine and keep talking, it's as if the kitchen cleans itself. And that's when I remember why the no-door arrangement is best. A locked-up messy kitchen stays a messy kitchen, but a kitchen-with-company has many hands for washing dishes.